Computational History In Action: Discovering Gutenberg’s Printing Process

Gutenberg is credited with having invented the typographic printing process in the West around 1450. Printing has been regarded as an exception to the general principle that technological advances happen incrementally; it is held that his idea, full-blown at its birth, remained virtually unchanged until the typographic developments of the 19th century.

We have studied early printing from an archaeological standpoint, focusing in particular on survivals from Gutenberg’s press. Using data analysis techniques based on high-resolution digital photography of these survivals, we have been able to find direct evidence of the technologies used to create them. These technologies do not in fact correspond to typographic printing in the modern sense. Although we are only beginning to develop a comprehensive picture of the early development of printing, it has become clear that Gutenberg was only the first of a series of European experimenters, who gradually “evolved” the concepts and methods of typography over a period of several decades.

The methods used to establish these findings (including multiresolution clustering, image understanding, optimization, and more) are closely related to problems in optical character recognition and document image analysis. New twists are introduced, however, not only by the application of these methods to an unusual problem, but also by the radical conceptual changes written language has undergone between the time of Gutenberg and our own era of digital typography. We will argue that the ease with which the modern Western alphabet and writing system were adapted for digital display in ~1960-present is a direct outcome of this earlier shift in writing technology, between 1450-1500. In more ways than one, Gutenberg’s printing is at a halfway-point between scribal and typographic representations of text.

Parts of this research appeared in the British Library’s centennial conference proceedings, “Incunabula and Their Readers” (2001), and in the Words column of Nature (28 June 2001). This work was also the subject of a BBC Open University documentary, “Renaissance Secrets: What Did Gutenberg Invent?” (

Speaker Details

Blaise Agüera y Arcas, 29 years old, currently the CTO and President of Sand Codex LLC, has a broad background in computer science and applied math, and has been writing software for more than 20 years. He graduated from Princeton University with a BA in Physics in 1998, and will receive a PhD in Applied and Computational Mathematics, also from Princeton, in 2005. His experience includes extensive independent research, consulting and freelance software design in a variety of areas, including graphics, computational neuroscience, biophysics, cheminformatics, computational drug design, data compression, and others. In 1996-97 he was Senior Software Engineer at Real-Time Geometry, which was purchased by MetaCreations Corporation (now While at MetaCreations, he authored patents on multiresolution 3D visualization and techniques for video compression and Internet transmission using Trixels™, as well as playing a leading role in developing streaming and multiresolution 2D and 3D technologies and contributing to the hardware and software design of a 3D laser scanner. In 2001 he received extensive worldwide press coverage for his discovery, using computational methods, of the printing technology used by Johann Gutenberg, considered the inventor of printing from movable type in the West. This technology differs markedly from later printing technologies, suggesting a reassessment of his traditional historical role. Blaise has published essays and research papers in theoretical biology, neuroscience, and history in leading journals. His work on multiscale user interfaces, mapping and distributed client/server architecture has been in progress since 2000, and has been kept independent of his other projects. His current prototype has been in development since 2001, and he is the sole author of the patents in Sand Codex’s portfolio. The commercial development of this technology is now his sole project.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas
CTO, Sand Codex